Merkley speaks about health care at Umatilla County Town Hall

UMATILLA COUNTY – COVID-19 may be moving into an endemic phase, but health care was still top of mind for many Umatilla County residents during a virtual town hall in the Monday, March 22 hosted by US Senator Jeff Merkley.

“I am sick and tired of COVID. I hope we are at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “We were thinking about it a year ago and it turned out that omicron was waiting for us.”

Good Shepherd Health Care System CEO Brian Sims said he was concerned that rural hospitals lacked the infrastructure to handle the next health crisis should it occur. Merkley said he was pushing legislation that would direct money towards preparing new mutations of the virus.

“I feel like he’s carrying an umbrella,” he said. “(When you) carry an umbrella, it won’t rain. I hope if we prepare properly, we won’t get another dangerous mutation.”

In addition to affordable housing and child care, Agape House board member Cathy Putnam said there are many county residents who need mental health services, but not many places to provide them.

In addition to hiring more school counselors, Merkley said he would like to see a public education campaign about the negative effects of electronics, which he says prevent young people from developing social skills.

Pendleton’s Greg Goad told Merkley that Pendleton was suffering the effects of pharmacy consolidation. With Bi-Mart closing its pharmacy last year, Pendleton has just three pharmacies, and Goad said waiting times for prescriptions have increased significantly since then.

“And next year if they do it again?” he said. “If we limit ourselves to a single supplier, I fear that the costs will explode.”

Merkley said he needed to look into the matter more closely to determine why pharmacies were closing, but added that the economy was becoming too centralized among big business.

Briana Spencer, an enrolled member of the Confederate Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, asked Merkley what he would do to advance treaty rights and ensure the Confederate Tribes of Warm Springs have long-term access to water . The tribes in central Oregon recently issued an emergency conservation order after a fire shut down their water treatment plant.

With prices remaining high after a recent spike, Umatilla Mayor Mary Dedrick asked what Merkley was doing to lower gasoline prices.

In the short term, Merkley said there was not much to do. As the United States releases oil from its strategic reserve, it is unlikely to drive down prices at the pump since the oil market is fixed globally. In the long term, soaring gas prices should give the country momentum to move away from fossil fuels, a move that could potentially hurt Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“If the world gets rid of fossil fuels, it won’t be able to make that much money,” he said. “Russia would never have undertaken this invasion of Ukraine if it hadn’t built up a massive foreign reserve based on the sale of oil.”

This story was originally published by the East Oregonian newspaper and is published here via the Associated Press’ Story Share project.

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